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May 18, 2003
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Acts, chapter 8, and follow along as I read verses 26-40. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.)
27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship
28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it."
30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"
31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."
34 The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?"
35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
37. And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Back in 1999. the movie Matrix was a stunning success, grossing more than $450 million dollars. So it is not surprise that two more films have been made. The second, Matrix Reloaded, opened a week or so ago. The third, The Matrix Revolutions, will follow in a few months.
People love this stuff. They love the action. The first Matrix film rewrote the rules on fight choreography and introduced the use of super-slow-motion bullets.
But this series has more than fantastic fighting. It is the spiritual dimension that gives The Matrix depth and richness. Where else can you find a character called Trinity, described by Rolling Stone magazine as “Neo’s leather-clad, hog-riding, kickboxing fixation”? Where else can you see a hero named Neo?
Neo’s other name is Thomas Anderson. The name “Thomas” can be linked to “Doubting Thomas,” in that Neo never really believed that he was The One. “Anderson” is a play on “Son of Man,” where the “Ander-” is from the Greek root andros meaning man. Christ was often referred to as the “Son of Man.”
The name “Neo,” as you might guess, means “new man.” He is the Chosen One, the Christ figure in the film. And he teams up with Trinity and a band of others to save the city of Zion. You cannot get much more biblical than that.
Al Milligan, a pastor in the United Methodist Church, writes:
I had no idea of what I would be seeing when I first saw The Matrix. It is nothing less than [a] biblical allegory of the Christian faith: There is birth out of the Matrix, baptism as Neo is flushed away, communion in the oracle, resurrection of Neo by no less than Trinity … and ascension at the very end. I really like this picture because it tells the story in a new way, but it’s the same story … The question of being caught in the matrix is something we all have to deal with whether it’s the Matrix of sexual stereotyping or economic slavery. I loved the line where one of the characters says “Jesus!” and Trinity’s next line is “What?”
[Al Milligan, “Pastor digs Matrix,” Hollywood Jesus, April 4, 2000, hollywoodjesus.com/matrix3.htm.]
The Matrix films are set in the year 2199. The world is being run by an artificial intelligence, under the rule of the evil Matrix. People are living in a computer-generated dream-world, and are being harvested like plants to be part of the Matrix. They live their lives in a virtual reality, never realizing that they are slaves of an evil system that has a false claim on the world.
Granted this is all science fiction and all Hollywood, but the basic themes are right out of the New Testament.
The Ethiopian Eunuch
Move then from the screen to the Scripture. Here is Philip fresh from some revival meetings in Samaria. He is on the road to Gaza, where he runs across a court official headed home to Ethiopia. This Ethiopian is reading Isaiah 53 but does not have a clue as to its meaning. He says to Philip, in effect, “I have a feeling that this is something important, but I cannot make heads or tails of it.” Then he says, “Do you know what it means?” So they read the passage from Isaiah, and Philip explains to him how this text is about a Savior, Jesus the Christ.
What Philip shows the Ethiopian is a totally new reality. The Ethiopian understands now the evil matrix—the worldly way of thinking and living—that that captures the hearts of men and women and enslaves them to sin. He understands that it was this same Matrix that crucified the Savior.
If this matrix was active in the first century, it is no less active today. We are all vulnerable to the seductive nature of the secular and worldly matrix that asks us to accept this as the only reality. We are all part of a cultural matrix that relentlessly tells us that the true reality is youth, beauty, sex, drugs, ambition, possessions, wealth, and power. This is the matrix that we live in, and it’s hard to break out in slow-motion bullet speed to live in the Eternal reality inaugurated by the real and only Savior, Jesus the Christ.
But the Ethiopian awakens from the matrix. He sees the horror around him and sees for the first time the evil system that has crucified the Lamb of God. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,” says the prophet, “his life is taken away from the earth” (vv. 32-33). But the good news is that the crucifixion is not the end — God raised Jesus to new life, to free us all from the power of sin and death! Philip helps the Ethiopian accept and embrace this new reality.
In the Matrix film, the same sort of thing happens. A few rebel humans discover the tyranny of the matrix, and turn to Neo. In their minds, he is “The One” who, according to prophecy, will save the world from cyber-slavery.
According to reviewer David Bruce, the movie’s biggest biblical parallel comes at the end: Neo is shot dead and then raised to new life. Of course, this is a reference to the resurrection of Christ, but it also borrows from the story of Sleeping Beauty, with a twist. Instead of the male prince kissing the woman, Trinity kisses Neo, and he comes back to life.
The resurrection transforms Neo, and he gains the ability to render the Matrix useless. He brings about “total system failure.” This Neo Savior, like Jesus Christ himself, defeats an evil system and saves the world. He then undergoes a kind of ascension and sets the stage for the second film, Matrix Reloaded.
That is the film. Again, it follows the New Testament. Jesus has brought about “total system failure” of this worldview. He has brought salvation to the world. That is what the Ethiopian realized.
It is interesting to note that the first Gentile convert to Christianity recorded in the New Testament was an Ethiopian eunuch. The conversion of this unnamed foreigner marks the start of the worldwide advancement of the gospel.
But let us go back a bit and say a word about Philip. Philip the Evangelist (not to be confused with Philip the Apostle) is known only from the book of Acts. He was one of the seven deacons chosen by the Jerusalem church to serve at table and to administer the church’s relief to its widows (Acts 6:3), but Philip is known principally for his evangelistic effectiveness among foreigners (i.e., non-Jews). Acts 21:8-9 tells us that Philip had four unmarried daughters who lived with their father and who possessed the gift of prophecy, and that Paul lodged with them at Caesarea on his last missionary journey to Jerusalem.
Having been chosen by the church along with Stephen, and for the same tasks, Philip was part of the Christian dispersion that fled Jerusalem following Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1-4). During his exile in the city of Samaria, Philip converted many non-Jews to Christianity, including the magician Simon Magus (Acts 8:4-13).
It was from his work in Samaria that Philip was instructed to go “toward the south” to a “wilderness road” that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Urged by the (Holy) Spirit to join the Ethiopian, Philip exegetes a passage from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant in light of the gospel about Jesus (vv. 29-35). On the basis of Philip’s exegesis of Isaiah, the eunuch requests baptism, fulfilling the great commission, Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples (Matthew 28:19).
Since the Protestant reformation, we Christians have argued much about the mode of baptism and about who can be baptized.
On the mode of Baptism, the Westminster Confession of Faith (28, 3) says, “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” So how does that compare with our text today from the book of Acts. It is a matter of interpretation. V38 says, “They both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.” What that seems to mean is that they walked out into the water and Philip reached down in the water and got a handful and sprinkled him; Or, maybe he got several handfuls of water and poured them out on his head; Or maybe he dunked him. It does not say. It does not say because it does not matter.
That is the view of historic Presbyterianism. If you have been immersed, we accept that baptism, if they poured the water on you, we accept that baptism, if they sprinkled you, we accept that baptism—because baptism is symbolic, and the mode of baptism does not matter. To be blunt the water does not save you. Now if you major in a mode of baptism, if you say that you must be baptized in a certain way in order to be a member of the church, then you are coming pretty close to saying that the water does save you, or at least that a certain mode of baptism saves you—which actually I do not think any Christian wants to say.
About the age of baptism, the confession says (28, 4): “Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.” The baptism of infants is a matter on which churches are divided. Those who reject infant baptism do so on the ground that the sacrament, by its nature, requires that those who receive it should understand what it represents. Thus, they say that baptism should be deferred until the “age of understanding.” To which we reply that no one ever really understands that mystery of God which is the gospel of Christ. If we wait for understanding, no one will ever be baptized. For example, suppose we say explain the Trinity, or you cannot be baptized. None of us are going to make it.
There is a theological statement made at the baptism of an infant. The baby is brought to the baptismal fount. The baby does nothing, understands nothing. Actually the baby might not even cooperate. She might cry and be violently opposed to this procedure. The baptism is performed upon the baby, for the baby. Even so, we do not we save ourselves, Christ saves us. You might say that baby does not deserve to be at the baptismal fount. You might equally well say that we do not deserve to be saved. But God saves us any way, and baptism is “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.” Baptism is a symbol of our salvation in Christ, “of our ingrafting into Christ.”
The New Reality
That is the way that the Ethiopian saw baptism. He shouts, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (v. 36). He’s looking for a resurrection himself, a rebirth into a new reality that will empower him to live in a totally new value system. He has recognized the matrix of this world and this world’s value system. He knows what it is and knows he wants nothing more to do with it. He wants to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death,” says the apostle Paul, attempting to explain this phenomenon to the Romans, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
The chariot screeches to a stop, and Philip baptizes the Ethiopian. He becomes a brand-new Christian — forgiven, freed and empowered to engage in ministry and mission. The Ethiopian is filled with joy, and he goes on his way rejoicing, while Philip is mysteriously snatched away by the Spirit of God and transported in a supernatural way to Azotus (vv. 38-40).
Now I wish I could say that they lived happily every after, but you kow of course that they were not free of the matrix. They were not free of their society. But they have taken that first necessary step toward breaking free—which is to accept Christ as savior and lord.
We must also break free. There is a Matrix that we need to escape and a new world that we are challenged to discover. For some of us, the Matrix is the Internet; for others, television ... or pornography ... or selfish ambition ... or materialism ... or unhealthy fantasies (maybe you think you will never die) ... or unrealistic expectations (maybe you think you will win the lottery). The Matrix is any version of reality that does not truly exist, but still has the power to enslave us, or addict us, or misguide us.
So what is your Matrix? What is cutting you off from the reality of life and steering you away from the abundant life that God desires for you? Whatever it is, its power can be broken by Jesus. If you turn away from your Matrix and toward your Messiah, you’ll find that Jesus can shatter your illusions. If you say, along with the Ethiopian eunuch, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (v. 37), you’ll be put in touch with the truth and reality of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If you trust in Jesus, he will take action to end your enslavement to the satanic system of this world, and he will show you the way to a new and truly abundant life.
All it takes is a leap of faith. Now I know that can be frightening. To step out in faith is a scary thing. But it is only by stepping out in faith that we can get to solid ground. The Ethiopian was forever transformed by his encounter with the good news of Jesus Christ, changed from being an official with a position to a man on a mission. And although we don’t know exactly what he did when he made it back to Ethiopia, it’s safe to say that he never saw his surroundings in the same way again. The real world for him was suddenly defined by Jesus Christ, the Son of God — not by the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. He discovered a whole new life, and at its center was a Messiah, not a Matrix. You need to discover a new life—one centered on a messiah, not a matrix. Amen.
Bruce, David. Review of The Matrix, Hollywood Jesus Web site, April 11, 2001. HollywoodJesus.com/matrix.htm.
Wells, Jeffrey. “The Matrix Sequels.” Rolling Stone. October 3, 2002, 75.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 7/23/03